An American Editor

May 2, 2012

The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet After a Couple of Weeks

A couple of weeks ago, my wife bought me a Nook Tablet. I related that experience, and my initial impressions, in The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet. Now that I have used the Tablet for a couple of weeks, I thought I would update my experience. (Note that I have not used or seen a Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox. Consequently, I cannot compare the Nook Tablet to either of those devices. My comments are not intended to imply that either the Fire or Vox cannot provide the same or similar experience. This is simply about my experience with the Nook Tablet.)

My primary ereading device has been my Sony 950, a 1.5-year-old eInk device that is no longer available except on the used market. My wife uses my Sony 505, which is now 4.5 years old, my original eInk device. Unlike the Sonys, the Tablet is an LCD screen, which means that it will be troublesome to read in sunlight and one does get some glare on the screen. There is no question in my mind that for straight reading of fiction, the eInk screen is more versatile at the moment.

But I have discovered something else — actually, several somethings else. First, contrary to my original thought that I would not like to read on a LCD screen after spending all day reading on LCD monitors, I actually do like reading on the Tablet. In many ways, I find it more enjoyable than reading on my Sony. This is possible because of the ease with which I can modify the screen brightness. Although I cannot literally mimic the eInk screen, I can make the contrast such that it is very comfortable to read for long periods.

Second, the Tablet weighs significantly more than the 950, although both are of the same 7-inch screen size. Add a cover, which I did, to the Tablet and the weight really climbs, or at least seems to when compared to the Sony 950. At first I thought I would find the weight annoying, but with use, I have found that I no longer notice it — unless I pick up my 950 between sessions with the Tablet.

Third, although both the 950 and the Tablet use touchscreen technology, the Tablet’s screen, when the device is off, really shows fingerprints (you don’t notice them when using the device). I find that I regularly am cleaning the Tablet’s screen. In contrast, the 950 doesn’t show the fingerprints and I clean the screen occasionally just because I know it needs it, not because I can see that it is needed. But the Tablet’s touchscreen technology is great. A very light, almost nonexistent tap on the screen changes the page; with the Sony, a swipe is needed.

Fourth is the excellent reading experience. I am slowly coming to prefer to read ebooks on the Tablet. Everything works to make my reading experience better. I can easily enlarge the font size, something I need to do as my eyes get older, and although I can also do the same on the 950, the Tablet gives me more choices.

The Tablet also gives me two other reading enhancements: the ability to select how the book should appear (e.g., narrow, wide, or very wide margins; and single, 1.5, and double line spacing; and whether the publisher’s default settings should be used or not) and the choice of typeface to display the material (e.g., Century School Book, Dutch, Georgia, Gill Sans). (There is also a “theme” option that lets me choose the background color.)

Overall, the control of the reading experience is much greater on the Tablet than on the 950 and the more I use the features of the Tablet, the more I am inclined for it to be my primary reading device.

Being an Android tablet, the Tablet also offers the kinds of features that would be found on more advanced tablets. I decided to try the apps feature. It comes with the Netflix app, so I entered my account information. I watched about 30 seconds of a movie just to try it. It works well and I can see possibly using it when I go on vacation. I bought a weather app (HD Weather, 99¢) so that I can get the local 5-day weather forecast.

That was pretty much it with the apps until about a week ago I decided to explore what apps are available. I found four that I grabbed immediately. The first is called The American Civil War Gazette (free). It provides daily newspaper articles from Northern and Southern newspapers regarding what was happening on the same date during the Civil War. It is a chance to relive the Civil War through the eyes of the newspapers of the time, day by day. A great app for anyone interested in the Civil War or just interested in trying to live history as if experiencing it personally.

The second app was Buddy Books (free). The app looks for ebooks available from B&N by category and/or price. I have played with it and it could be a better app, but it will certainly help me find ebooks when I’m ready to shop for them (which won’t be for a while; I have 200 ebooks in my Nook library already and hundreds more that I bought from Smashwords and Sony.)

The third app was the Smithsonian Channel (free). I am a long-time subscriber to Smithsonian magazine; I’ve been a subscriber since the 1980s and my current subscription runs through 2022. So I thought this would appeal to me. The app brings the Smithsonian Channel TV programs to the Tablet for free viewing at a time of my choosing. The problem is that I never watch TV and although I have the app, I still find I am disinclined to watch the TV programs. But you never know, and for free, I didn’t think I could go wrong.

The fourth app, is Audubon Birds (purchased for 99¢ on special sale; regularly $14.99). I bought this app for my wife who is a birder. It is the electronic version of the Audubon field guide and is absolutely wonderful. This app will get a lot of use. You can zoom in on the bird photos for more details; you can play their songs. It is packed with information that is easy to find and use.

As I wrote in the initial article on the Tablet, the Tablet was bought as a way for me to electronically read my daily New York Times. At first I thought that would likely be the limit of my use of the Tablet except when traveling. Even though I have had the Tablet for only a couple of weeks, I am finding that it is rapidly becoming my preferred ereading device, which is what I do 99% of the time I use the device. The Tablet has flaws, such as the need to clean the screen regularly, the glare/washout when used in the sun, and the inability to obtain Android apps from places other than B&N and install them, but I find these to ultimately be minor inconveniences the more I use the Tablet — especially when you consider the price I paid: $149 (for the 16GB Tablet) plus a 1-year subscription to the electronic edition of the New York Times.

If you are going to buy only one utilitarian device, I do not think you can go wrong buying the Nook Tablet.

April 11, 2012

The Amazon Conundrum: Competition in eBooks

On several forums that I visit, there has been ongoing discussion about Amazon and monopolies and how no one need worry because if Amazon were a monopoly and did raise prices, a new competitor would instantly appear. The discussions often also evolved to criticising anti-Amazon posters for not having a solution to the problem, just whining about the problem.

I think those who do not see a potential problem with an Amazon ebook monopoly for authors, publishers, and consumers are simply fooling themselves. The ebook market is not like the TV market. Unlike TVs which all meet certain standards so that a Sony can be substituted for a Samsung, which can be substituted for a Panasonic, ebooks do not meet a set of standards and a Kindle-compliant ebook cannot be substituted for an ePub-compliant ebook without some finagling and without removing any DRM.

Consequently, should Amazon drive out of the ebook business its primary national competitors, the likelihood of someone coming along and overnight becoming a major competitor is nearly nil. Consider the cost of duplicating Amazon’s already-in-place infrastructure. Plus, how would a new competitor break the Amazon eco system? The only way competition might have a chance at surviving would be with Department of Justice intervention.

Picture the ebook marketplace with Sony, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble gone, leaving just Amazon. If Amazon raised its pricing to insure profitability (or, alternatively, followed the Walmart practice and instead kept pricing stable but squeezed authors and publishers), what could be done about it? Not much. To say that a new competitor would see an opportunity and exploit it is naive.

The new competitor would have to build a business from the ground up. How likely is it that Amazon would sit back for a few years to give such a company a chance to gain a foothold? How likely is it that venture capitalists would be willing to fund the necessary billions for such a venture? And if the new competitor was ebook focused, for how long do you think they could underprice Amazon? Remember that Amazon has other, well-established divisions that could support a money-losing book division, something that a new competitor wouldn’t have.

To think that with the fall of the current crop of competitors new competitors would rise that could compete with Amazon nationally is simply wishful thinking with no basis in reality. The response is that Walmart didn’t raise prices, but ignores that Walmart has strong national competition in companies like Costco, Kmart, and Target — once you eliminate Sony, Kobo, and B&N, Amazon doesn’t. Apple is currently a weak ebook competitor and no one thinks much of the Google ebookstore’s competitive status.

This problem with Amazon was brought about originally by publishers who didn’t look beyond their noses when giving Amazon significant product discounts in the early years. The problem is being compounded by the same publishers’ inaction and by authors scrambling to join the Amazon exclusivity club. If publishers and authors do not take steps to halt the rise of Amazon, there soon will be no outlet but Amazon for national exposure.

The question is what can publishers and authors do? For authors, the only option is not to give Amazon exclusivity and to actively promote other ebookstores where their books can be found. If you promote Amazon primarily, you are feeding the problem, not starving it.

Publishers really are in the stronger position to halt Amazon’s dominance; they just lack the willpower to do more than whine. Agency pricing (which is legal; the Department of Justice is investigating whether there was collusion to impose agency pricing, not whether agency pricing itself is legal) was a first step but as done by publishers, insufficient.

What really needs to be done is for publishers to decide that their ebooks can only be sold in the ePub format and only with Adobe adept DRM (i.e., essentially social DRM like B&N uses). Once you break the Amazon closed eco system, everyone can compete on the same terms. Combine this with correct agency pricing, and the playing field becomes perfectly level. Now ebooksellers will have to compete on other factors, such as customer service.

If Sony’s ebookstore went under, it would go under because of other factors, factors that were within its control, rather than because of format wars.

The forcing of ePub and one type of DRM doesn’t directly address the exclusivity problem, but it could do so obliquely. If competitors to Amazon began to increase market share, the incentive to be Amazon exclusive would diminish.

One other thing to consider: I see no reason why, now that Amazon is a direct competitor of traditional publishers — it has established its own publishing houses to sign on authors for Amazon exclusives — traditional publishers can’t simply refuse to sell their books — both p and e — to Amazon. It seems to me to be illogical to require them to provide the means to fund their own funerals.

The longer the publishers dawdle in taking action against Amazon, the more power they devolve to Amazon. The point will soon arrive when publishers will be able to take no effective action against Amazon and we will be writing their obituaries.

The same is true of authors who sign up for Amazon exclusivity and who promote Amazon. There will soon come a time when the only game in town will be Amazon and you will be at Amazon’s mercy. You will find that no one will stand beside you should you decide to fight at that late point in time — publishers won’t because they will be powerless; consumers won’t because all they are interested in is lowest available price; other ebooksellers won’t because they will be nonexistent.

The time to fight to prevent monopolization of the ebook marketplace is now. The way to do it is to encourage publishers to only permit the sale of their ebooks in ePub format with a standard DRM and for authors to not give Amazon exclusivity. In the absence of such action, we can wear the lemming label.

February 6, 2012

Is There Hope for Barnes & Noble Redux

Last week I offered the suggestion that Barnes & Noble (B&N) consider getting out of the brick-and-mortar end of the business and instead franchise its name and cut deals with indie bookstores to promote its Nooks and ebooks. The reception was varied, with some commenters thinking this was a great idea and others thinking it was a lousy idea, and yet a third group thinking it was — at least — an idea. Yet the overall tenor running through all the comments was that B&N will be steamrolled by the Amazon juggernaut no matter what it does.

That gave me pause and made me think some more about B&N and its relationship with its customers.

My relationship with B&N goes back a great many years. Even when I worked for Borders, I shopped at B&N. I have been a member of the B&N club for many years and I even have a B&N Mastercard. Until this past year, my wife and I generally visited the local B&N store at least twice a month and I spent thousands of dollars a year at the local B&N as well as at B&N online.

Yet as I sit at my desk and think about my long-term relationship with B&N, I realize that the flame has gone out. The more I think about it, the more I realize that B&N began spritzing the flame when it released the Nook; changed the spritzing to a more forceful watering when it firmly adopted its own DRM and refused to give members any member advantage over nonmembers when it came to either the Nook or ebooks; and has finally doused the flame with its newest changes to its membership plan. Try as I might, and although I will continue to buy from B&N rather than Amazon so as to do my part to keep competition alive, the reality is that B&N has consistently spurned me, and the changes in my book buying (and the amount I spend at B&N) reflect that spurning.

As you may recall, I was unhappy when B&N came out with the Nook (the original one I thought was poorly designed; the new Touch is very nice but not nice enough to make me replace either my working 1-year-old Sony 950 or my working 4-year-old Sony 505 with it) and wouldn’t give me my 10% member’s discount — even though I was prepared at the time to buy two Nooks at $249 each! B&N’s rationale was that at $249 it was already losing money on the device; my rationale was that as a relatively big book buyer ((I spent thousands of dollars a year at B&N on books, very few of which were the heavily discounted “bestsellers”), B&N should be willing to give me a small incentive to remain a B&N book buyer — especially when its primary competition was selling for less. It wasn’t the money so much — afterall, I spent more on my Sonys than I would have on the Nooks — as much as I wanted to feel that this was a partnership.

If B&N was losing money at $249 it must be shooting itself in the head with a machine gun every time it sells a Nook for $99. More importantly, because it chose to save $25 — a shortsightedness that Jeff Bezos would not tolerate at Amazon — it lost me as an ebook customer. True, if you look at my Nook library you’ll find I have purchased more than 125 ebooks from B&N, but if you look at the prices paid, with the exception of a very few, the purchase prices were “free.” And to add a nail to the coffin, nearly all those that I did pay for, I paid for with B&N’s own money — the gift cards I earned from using the B&N Mastercard.

More importantly for B&N is that in the last year my purchases at the local B&N have been few. We went from visiting the store (and buying at each visit) at least twice a month to visiting once every three or four months and sometimes not buying at all. (For the first time in six months I bought a book at the local B&N last week.) For the most part, my wife and I have become ebookers and most of the ebooks we read are purchased from Smashwords or Sony, not B&N.

I recently discussed with my wife making more visits to the local B&N. It would be easy to do as the B&N is in the same mall as our grocery store. But then came the news that the terms of the membership were changing. The discount remains unusable for ebooks but instead of a 20% discount in the store on all adult hardcovers and 40% on bestsellers, the discount is changing to 10% and 40%. As we rarely buy the “bestsellers,” B&N is simply cutting our discount. Not much of an incentive to buy at the local B&N. (Interestingly, as a general rule the books available at B&N online are much more steeply discounted than at the local store even with the membership card — and it has been quite a while since the membership did anything but give you free shipping online.)

The point of all this is to say that maybe B&N is on a suicide path and without hope for long-term survival. It is losing sight of the fact that 75%+ of the book market remains pbooks. eBooks are important, and the area of greatest growth, but ebooks are still in the childhood stage. Although they cannot be neglected, they cannot be focused on to the exclusion of the dominant portion of the market. To remain viable, B&N has to dually focus on both ebooks and pbooks. Sadly, it is becoming dangerously myopic when it comes to pbooks.

It has taken no steps to encourage those core readers, the ones who read several books a month and who are B&N members, to be active buyers of its ebooks or pbooks. Whatever it has done, it has done with the broad market in mind. Many months ago I argued that this was a mistake, that B&N really needed to cultivate that core group of book buyers who could be the proselytizers for its future. I said months ago when the Nook was introduced that B&N needed to reward its members for being members and not treat members like everyone else or B&N would ultimately be sorry.

I’m sorry to say, but perhaps there is no real hope for B&N. Whoever does their strategic thinking is spending too little time thinking and too much time doing harmful things to B&N’s future. I looked at a Nook Touch last week. The free-Touch-with-a-New-York-Times-subscription offer tempted me. But I can get the New York Times for the same price on my Sony 950 so that wasn’t much of an incentive. In the end, I was peeved over the change in membership terms and simply decided to pass on the offer. B&N really doesn’t want me; B&N has successfully extinguished the last of the embers.

The sad thing is that putting out my fire, and the fire of other B&N members, B&N may be also be putting closed on its door.

January 16, 2012

Why Won’t Amazon Compete in the ePub Market?

Since the beginning of the “modern” ebook era, when Amazon entered the marketplace with its Kindle, I’ve wondered why Amazon chose to follow its own path as regards format and DRM rather than adopting the ePub standard and a more benign or universal form of DRM. I’ve wondered because by choosing its own path, Amazon has decided that readers who are not Kindlers (by which I mean consumers who read on dedicated e-ink devices that are incompatible with Amazon and thus cannot buy ebooks at Amazon unless they are willing to strip the DRM and convert the file, which the majority are either unwilling or unable to do) is not a demographic to woo.

What is it about ebooks that makes them different from virtually every other market that Amazon is in? Amazon sells, either directly or indirectly, all kinds of universally usable electronic equipment and entertainment. It does not sell, for example, digital music or movie DVDs that are incompatible with the devices consumers already own or buy at Amazon or elsewhere. Only in ebooks has Amazon struck a different path.

In every other category of goods for sale at Amazon, Amazon tries to woo every consumer it can. Only in ebooks does it deliberately exclude millions of potential customers. Why? What is it about ebooks that warrants this divergence by Amazon from its very successful business plan? Granted that Amazon would prefer to sell you a Kindle and lock you into its eco system, but that, at least on the surface, makes no sense as a reason to exclude millions of other ebook consumers from being able to buy ebooks at Amazon. One would think that Amazon’s priority is to sell ebooks on which it makes a profit, not reading devices on which it is said to lose money.

Try as I might, I see no obvious reason for this discrepancy. Amazon could sell its Kindles and also sell ebooks in a Kindle-specific format alongside an ePub format. Or it could sell its Kindles and simply make Kindles ePub compatible. Yet it does neither. It prefers to exclude millions of ebookers who are using devices that require the ePub format.

So I ask again: What makes the ebook market different from the other entertainment markets in which Amazon competes?

It surely can’t be because Amazon doesn’t think it can have a winning hand. Amazon has competed and continues to compete in the hardcover and paperback market on equal terms with all competitors, yet it is the dominant bookseller in those markets. I would expect Amazon to dominate in the ePub ebook market as well, simply because of its marketing prowess, its reputation for value and low prices, and its willingness to operate at a loss fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

Although no one has accurate numbers, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble have sold millions of ereading devices, not one of which is compatible with the Amazon ebook store. Yet every B&N-branded device is compatible with the Sony and Kobo ebookstores (and every ePub ebookstore except Apple’s) — buy a book at Sony, download it to your computer, and sideload it onto your Nook. No questions asked. Similarly, Kobo and Sony devices work the same with any ePub ebookstore except B&N and Apple.

Why is Amazon willing to ignore the millions of readers in the ePub market? Strategically, Amazon has always tried to make people want to shop at Amazon because of price, selection, and ease of buying. Isn’t that the rationale behind the patenting of the 1-click system? And this is the strategy Amazon follows in everything it sells — except ebooks. Why?

I wonder about this but have no answer. I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I struggle to see how ebooks are different from movie DVDs, digital music, televisions, baby diapers, or any other commodity within Amazon’s sales world. The rationale for establishing an exclusionary system for ebooks when all else is inclusionary eludes me.

What else also eludes me is why Amazon thinks this is good policy for Amazon. Amazon has always worked on the principle that if a person buys their hardcover or paperback books from Amazon, they will also buy their TV from Amazon. So if a person won’t or can’t buy their ebooks from Amazon, are they likely to buy their TV from Amazon? Does this exclusionary policy on ebooks have a snowball effect on other items Amazon sells and on the other markets in which it competes?

Consider this difference as well: Amazon has gone to great effort to create the Kindle, its own dedicated reading device using a proprietary format and DRM scheme. But it hasn’t gone to that effort for other devices such as a DVD player. Why? What makes ebooks and the ebook market different from every other commodity that Amazon sells and every other market in which Amazon competes?

The only answer I have come up with, and I don’t find it a satisfactory answer, is that of all the industries represented by the goods that Amazon sells, the weakest in every sense of the word is the publishing industry, making it the one industry that is highly vulnerable to a direct attack by Amazon. Amazon can become a major publisher because of the industry’s weakness and thus be a vertically integrated enterprise — something that would be much more difficult and costly if attempted in the movie or TV production industries.

Of course, the same question can be asked about B&N’s choice of a DRM scheme, but at least B&N has made it freely available to all other device makers. That it hasn’t been adopted by Kobo or Sony, for example, does make me wonder if B&N hasn’t made a major error in not changing its DRM scheme to be compatible with Sony and Kobo. I think given a choice between the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, most ebookers would shop at B&N, even if they prefer the Sony or Kobo device over the Nook.

What do you think?

December 14, 2011

eBook Exclusivity — A Good or Bad Idea?

The answer really is “it depends.” It depends on who you are and where you are in the ebook world.

Recently, Amazon started a program for its Prime members: they can borrow 1 ebook for free each month, choosing from a list of more than 30,000 titles (and the list is growing). The source of these ebooks appears to be the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. Amazon is encouraging self-publishing authors to participate in KDP. KDP will “lend” books in its program to Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which is part of the Prime membership.

Amazon hasn’t ignored compensation, either. It has set up a pool of money ($500,000), which is the pool for the first month (Amazon plans to set aside $6 million for the 2012 pool). Every indie-author-participant whose book is borrowed will receive a share of the pool based on the number of times the book is borrowed as a share of total borrowings of all particpating ebooks. Presumably, if your book is borrowed 100 times and the total number of borrowings is 500,000, you would receive $1 for each borrowing (hopefully my math is correct). If, on the other hand, your book is lost in the ever-growing list and not borrowed at all, you will receive nothing except for whatever royalty you are due in the normal course of business with Amazon as a result of sales.

So far, so good — or so it would appear.

Let me say upfront that I am not a friend of Amazon. I disapprove of Amazon’s attempts to dominate the ebook market. But I do admire Amazon’s creativity. The one thing I truly feel confident in stating about Amazon is this: whatever Amazon does, it has carefully thought about how it will ultimately benefit Amazon and further Amazon’s dominance interests. In other words, Amazon is a business’ business. Unfortunately, a corollary to that equation is that what is good for Amazon may not be good for consumers and/or authors and publishers in the long-term. Amazon is proving adept at focusing everyone outside Amazon on the short-term and assuming that the long-term will be equally glorious. As the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

The deal with Amazon is this: The author/publisher agrees to give Amazon’s KDP exclusive rights to the ebook. The author/publisher agrees that the book will not be available at any place other than Amazon, not even the author’s own website, during the exclusivity term, which term runs for 90 days and is automatically extended unless the author/publisher takes affirmative action to withdraw from the program — with the long-term consequences of withdrawal not currently known.

Exclusivity both bothers me and worries me. It bothers me because Amazon’s environment is a closed environment (yes, I know one can strip the DRM but most consumers can’t and won’t, and I know that Amazon has application for nearly every reading device known to humankind, but that means that even though I’ve chosen Sony or Barnes & Noble over Amazon, Amazon is pressuring me to kowtow to it), unlike virtually every other ebook retailer (with the notable exception of Apple). To read an Amazon DRMed ebook, you must use an Amazon device or application; with most other ebook retailers all that matters is that your device be ePub capable. (And, yes, I do know that there is a DRM problem with B&N and even more so with Apple.) So the exclusivity program bothers me because Amazon is locking up authors and their books to the Amazon platform, whether I want to be on it or not.

Yet worse is what worries me about this program — all the unknowns. I know that Amazon’s big ebook authors — its million sellers like J.A. Konrath (whose books I have never read or bought) — signed on but what I don’t know is whether they signed on under the same terms as Sally Unknown has to sign. More importantly, however, is that Amazon is trying to get the Agency 6 to sign on and is rumored to be offering them a set fee for each borrowing, that is, they would not participate in the pooled money.

If the deal being offered the indie authors is such a sweetheart deal, why isn’t it the same deal as being offered to others? The mighty shaft is rising and it’s not aiming for the Agency 6!

I am also concerned that authors may feel they must join this program in order to stay within Amazon’s good graces. After all, for most authors currently, the bulk of their sales are via Amazon. Yet, there is something that indie authors need to look at, and do so carefully: how are their sales trending?

Jeff Bennington, a suspense writer, explains at his The Writing Bomb blog his decision to participate. Personally, I don’t find his arguments convincing. Bennington states he is joining because 97% of his books have sold via Amazon. One needs to back up a bit from giving that fact too much credence. For example, that number represents past sales not future sales. More important than past sales is the sales trend: has growth on Amazon plateaued while sales at B&N are growing at a 30% rate? What has the author done/not done to promote his book at the Sony store? Have all his promotion efforts been geared to Amazon?

Ultimately, the exclusivity arrangement will hurt lesser-known authors for several reasons: (1) once on the exclusivity bandwagon, it will be difficult to get off (not only must one take affirmative steps to get off, but one has to overcome the fear factor of doing so). (2) Amazon dominates the U.S. market but does it dominate elsewhere? As I understand it, the exclusivity is worldwide. (3) Authors face the same problem in KDP that they face outside KDP — who knows of them or about their book? If KDP already has more than 50,000 participating titles, what are the odds of someone picking your book over another book? (4) If Amazon is successful in getting the Agency 6 to participate and that participation includes the top-tier authors — the Stephen Kings and Clive Cusslers and Ruth Rendells of the publishing world — how likely is it that someone will pick Sally Unknown’s ebook to read for free as opposed to one of Stephen King’s ebooks, especially when the reader can only borrow 1 ebook a month?

What exactly is the indie author getting by participating — not what does the indie author hope to get by participating? All I see that is definite are benefits flowing to Amazon, which has put itself in a no-lose situation; it is wishful thinking and hopes that flows to indie authors.

One other issue matters, I think. What KDP indie-author-participants earn is based on the percentage their sales represent of all sales (unlike the Agency 6 who get paid a set amount each time a book is “borrowed” and who knows what the million ebook club members get). Who has the right and is going to audit the program to verify that the numbers are correct? As far as I can tell, authors are not given the right to audit the entire program, which seems to me to be fundamental to determining whether exclusivity with Amazon is the right move for your book. When Amazon sends you a check for $10, how do you know that it shouldn’t be for $100 if you cannot audit the whole program? And if this is such an up-and-up sweetheart deal for the indie author, then why can’t an indie author or a group of indie authors audit the program? I guess it all boils down to believing “Amazon is my friend and will do me no harm.”

As I noted earlier, I am not a friend of Amazon. I fear what will happen when the only choice for buying an ebook is Amazon, and Amazon is doing everything it can to hasten that day. It is worrisome when indie authors are willing to jump on Amazon’s bandwagon without looking in depth at Amazon’s KDP program and its exclusivity arrangements and the red flags that should be arising. Instead of joining the herd and singing the mantra “Amazon is my friend, I need not worry,” indie authors should be singing the mantra “Amazon is Amazon’s friend, and I do need to worry.”

Indie authors — and all publishers and authors — need to think and look long-term and not be seduced by the possible but uncertain short-term. The waters are shark infested.

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June 24, 2011

Worth Noting: How Do the Nook and Kobo Touches Stack Up?

The Nook Touch, the newest reading device from Barnes & Noble, is a touchscreen device and sells for $139. The newest device from Kobo is the $129 Kobo eReader Touch, which also sports touchscreen technology. The big question is: How do the Nook Touch and Kobo Touch stack up against the Sonys and the Kindle 3?

As is always the case with technology, each has its pluses and minuses, and which plus or minus weighs more heavily depends on the individual user. The video reviews have already begun.

First up is a comparison of the Nook Touch to the Sony 350 (and essentially the Sony 650 and 950, too):

Second, is the Nook Touch vs. Kindle 3:

The Kobo Touch is the chief competitor to the Nook Touch. Here is a video review of the Kobo Touch.

As impressive as I find the Nook Touch and the Kobo Touch, I am still pleased that I bought a Sony 950, although to get the Sony features and larger size (the 950 is a 7-inch screen whereas the two Touches are 6-inch screens) I paid twice the price. For how I use my ereader device, however, neither the Nook Touch nor the Kobo Touch is up to par, and the Kindle 3 is simply far behind design-wise if you prefer, as I do, touchscreen technology to a physical keyboard that is omnipresent. (The screens of all the devices — Sony, Kobo, Nook, and Kindle — are similar as they all use the same eInk Pearl screen.)

However, if the factors bearing the greatest weight were price and “good enough,” there is no doubt I would buy either the Nook Touch or the new Kobo Touch. As between the two (and because I live in the United States), I am not sure. I certainly prefer the B&N eco system to the Kobo system, but Kobo has perhaps a better implementation. Because I am not interested in the “social” environment, I don’t consider that a plus or minus for the devices — just something for me to ignore.

For those of you who read this blog and who are deciding to buy one of the touchscreen devices — or are deciding not to buy one and go the Kindle route — what influenced your decision?

A couple of other things to note and consider: First, the touchscreen technology that the Sony, Kobo, and Nook are using is the same on all devices. Second, Amazon is usually a quick responder. I wonder what its response will be. And, finally, Sony has in the past announced new products in late August and made them available in October. Will Sony come up with something to shake things up again as it did last year with the combination of the Pearl screen and the infrared touchscreen?

June 22, 2011

The eBook Revolution’s Effects on My Book Buying & Reading

For many years my reading habits ran in cycles. For x period of time, I read only fantasy and science fiction. When that cycle came to an end, it was replaced with mysteries. As that cycle ended, I moved to nonfiction biography. And the pattern kept going — I would come to the book-buying and -reading trough and gorge on books that fell within a particular genre, satiate my appetite for that genre, and then move on to feast on another genre. For 50+ years, that has been my habit. Until 3.5 years ago…

…when I received my first ereader device, a Sony PRS 505, as a holiday gift. Suddenly my reading world was threatened with upheaval. At the time, I had been in my third year or so of reading largely nonfiction and the occasional novel. All of my book purchases were hardcover and I was spending upwards of $5,000 a year on hardcovers (I am not going to discuss my magazine reading as those habits haven’t yet been affected by the ebook revolution).

When I got my Sony I learned pretty quickly that I had limited options as to where I could buy ebooks. At the time, Sony used its own proprietary format; it hadn’t yet transitioned to the significantly more open ePub format, although that came about 8 months later. I also discovered, after purchasing my first nonfiction ebook for the Sony that nonfiction on the Reader was not going to be a practical option for me. Much of the nonfiction I read is heavily noted and accessing notes was awkward at best, impossible at worst.

I also purchased a couple of novels that I had wanted to read but which were no longer available in print, yet they were available as “reasonably” priced ebooks. And thus began a change in my reading habits, compliments of the ebook revolution. I found that reading fiction on the Sony was extraordinarily pleasurable. The screen was excellent; the ease of bookmarking was great; the ability to switch among books wonderful; and the ease with which I could carry multiple books everywhere with me was breathtaking. The Sony was meant for me and for any avid reader — as long as it was fiction.

That was the kicker — it had to be fiction. The Reader could handle nonfiction, but not all that well (and from what I could see of friends’ Kindles, the Kindle was in the same boat). So what to do?

In a way, solving my problem was easy. I have always viewed fiction and nonfiction differently. I consider 98% of all fiction as read-once-throwaway material; little of it was worth saving for any reason. I also consider fiction to be a “cheap” read. What I mean is that with only a few exceptions, the most I am willing to pay for fiction is the price of the mass market paperback discounted. In contrast, I consider 100% of the nonfiction I buy to be books I want to keep in my permanent library for future reference by me or someone else (note that I said that I buy; there is a lot of nonfiction that belongs in the fiction category of read-once-then-throwaway). I consider these books to be readable multiple times (although I do not do that with a great deal of frequency) and some of them to be collectible. Consequently, I will buy the hardcover and pay the price.

The ebook revolution affected my reading habits by “making” me buy and read fiction in addition to the nonfiction I buy and read. My habits have changed; my reading broadened. The ebook revolution also introduced me to a category of books that I would not have considered at all before the advent of ebooks — the self-published book. I still have not ventured into self-published nonfiction because I still give credence to traditional publishing and its vetting process, although that credence has been under attack in recent months as a result of traditional publisher carelessness that has been publicized.

Previous to the ebook revolution that began for me with the gift of the Sony, I would never have knowingly bought a self-published/vanity press book. No exception. But within weeks of receiving the Sony, I discovered Smashwords and free and 99¢ ebooks. I grant that there is a lot of poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced drivel at Smashwords, but I was willing to do my own vetting for that price. I also discovered Fictionwise, which had some very inexpensive fantasy books, especially with the sales.

I purchased a lot of ebooks from Smashwords and Fictionwise and soon found that I was devoting much of my reading time to fiction. I’d pickup a hardcover nonfiction book only to put it back down after a few minutes because I really wanted to read on my Sony. I was hooked. (I’m waiting for the American Psychological Association to create a new mental disease category for my ereader addiction.) I will admit that given my druthers, I’d druther read on my Sony (which is now the newer Sony 950) than read a print book.

It is a constant, daily struggle for me, and I am losing the battle with myself. As each day passes, I become ever so slightly more addicted to reading on my Sony 950 and less willing to pick up the pbook. This is causing me angst on another front: the financial front.

Because of how poorly many ebooks are produced, their high pricing, and the restrictions imposed by DRM, not least of which is the idea that I am “renting” the ebook rather than owning it, I am reluctant to abandon hardcover for my nonfiction. I think making that transition is at least 5 years, maybe 10 years, away for me. As well as my Sony 950 handles footnotes and endnotes, there are still things that dedicated ereaders do not handle well that are important to nonfiction, such as images. This conflicts me because the reading experience of the Sony 950 is so great.

As this internal battle rages, I find that in some cases I buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions of a particular nonfiction book. Granted this doesn’t happen often, but even I can see it happening with increasing frequency. Whereas when I was using the Sony 505, which I did for 3 years, I only purchased 3 titles in both formats, an average of 1 per year, since buying my Sony 950 at its release 8 months ago, I have purchased 2 books in both formats and have contemplated purchasing several more (but have not yet given in).

The one battle that the ereader has won, and it wasn’t much of a battle, is in regards to fiction: I will only buy fiction in ebook form, with the exception of a couple of authors whose books I am collecting, in which event I will buy both formats.

The other battles that the ereader has won are that of broadening my reading habits and skewing the number of fiction versus nonfiction books I buy. As for the former, I now read concurrently fiction and nonfiction rather than cycling and I read multiple genres of fiction rather than cycling. As for the latter, whereas I used to buy 20 nonfiction for every 1 fiction pbook, I now buy many more than 20 fiction for every 1 nonfiction I buy, although I read only 3 fiction for every 1 nonfiction (I have large to-be-read piles of both to get through). However, I rarely spend more than 99¢ on the fiction books.

My reading and buying habits have been significantly influenced by the ebook revolution. Has it affected your habits, too?

May 31, 2011

On Books: Changing Buying Habits

As readers of this blog know, every so often I do a piece titled On Today’s Bookshelf in which I list a sampling of my recent hardcover and ebook acquisitions and preorders. In working on a yet-to-be-published On Today’s Bookshelf, I realized that I am stockpiling ebooks, growing my TBR (To Be Read) pile, and doing so largely by “purchasing” free ebooks — that is, ebooks that either the author has set the price at free or the author has issued a limited-time coupon that reduces the price to free. If I had to guess at a percentage, I would say that between 80% and 85% of all my ebooks fall into the free category.

I think this does not bode well for the financial future of either authors or publishers. I don’t imagine I am unique in acquiring free ebooks.

As of this writing, I have 86 unread ebooks waiting to be loaded onto my Sony 950 and 220 unread ebooks already loaded on the 950 (I delete ebooks from the 950 once I have read them). Since I received my first ereader 3.5 years ago, the Sony 505 that my wife now uses, I have “purchased” 934 ebooks, of which I have either read or tried to read 628.

I realize that many of the free ebooks are poor imitations of literature, but a significant portion are at least good (a rating of 3 or 4 stars) and a significant number — that is, significant within the schemata of the ebooks — are excellent (a rating of 5 or 5+ stars). If I had to apply a percentage to the number of ebooks I have “purchased” that are 3 stars or better (using, of course, my rating system which I outlined in On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)), I would guesstimate that 40% to 50% meet that standard.

So why does this not bode well for authors and publishers? Because as the number of ebooks I “purchase” at the free price grows, the less I need to consider actually spending money on an ebook. This is not to say that I won’t spend any money on ebooks; rather that I will spend money on many fewer ebooks than I otherwise would. At Smashwords, which is a prime source of ebooks for me, my wishlist has 38 ebooks on it, some of which have been there for many months. I do add to that list, but I have made no move to spend money on any of the listed books because I have yet to deplete my trove of free ebooks.

I have “purchased” more than 125 ebooks at Smashwords, but most of them had a final price of free. During ebook week in March alone, I “purchased” 105 ebooks at Smashwords, all of them having a final price of free.

Smashwords is not the only place these free ebooks can be found. There are numerous sources, including at the better-known ebooksellers GoogleBooks, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, and lesser-known ebooksellers and sources like Baen, ManyBooks, MobileRead, and Feedbooks.

It strikes me that free is rapidly becoming the new price point. One cannot even argue that the free books aren’t written by known, bestseller authors, because a goodly number of them are written by such authors, particularly in the romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres (and their subgenres like historical romance, military science fiction).

With 306 waiting-to-be-read ebooks, I have at least a year’s worth of reading currently available to me. Yet that is somewhat misleading because that year never seems to get shorter — I am constantly adding to and subtracting from that TBR pile as new ebooks are made available to “purchase” for free. True, I won’t get the newest Martha Grimes or David Weber novel for free, but that’s the tradeoff.

The economics of ebooks become baffling if one doesn’t spend money on ebook purchases. The amortization of the reading device across the free ebooks makes sense; after all, it is pretty hard to go wrong spending $150-$200, even $300, on the device when you can read thousands of ebooks for free on it. Where the economics falter is in authors and publishers earning money.

I suspect that a significant part of my focusing on “purchasing” free ebooks is that publishers and many indie authors are setting unrealistically high prices for their ebooks. Whether the prices are justifiable in true economic sense doesn’t really matter; they aren’t justifiable to the reader. A reader who gets burned once spending $14.99 on a poorly written, poorly formatted, or nonproofread ebook, especially when they are nonreturnable, is unlikely to be willing to spend $14.99 again in hopes that the next purchase won’t be a repeat sucker purchase. Instead, such a reader is likely to move down the price chain.

As increasing numbers of ebookers move down the price chain, the average selling price of ebooks also moves down the price chain, and will eventually reach the free marker. The closer that average gets to free, the more difficult it will be for authors and publishers to earn a living. (Yes, there will always be a few authors and publishers who are able to earn excellent incomes at lower rates, but we need to look at the macro picture, not the micro picture.)

As other ebookers have pointed out in articles they have written, buying habits are changing. They are changing for a lot of reasons and ebookers are not universally focused on “purchasing” free ebooks, but regardless of the reason why their buying habits are changing, the trend is clear that the changes are not for the economic betterment of authors and publishers.

In my specific case, where I used to spend $5,000 or more a year on purchasing books, I am now spending less than $2,000 — even though I am “purchasing” more books than ever before. The poor quality of ebooks has made me more cautious about purchasing pbooks. Previously, I would simply purchase a pbook that interested me because how well written and edited it was was already cast in stone — it just wasn’t going to get better than it already was. However, ebooks have changed that. I now scrutinize pbooks before buying because ebooks have made me more aware of poor writing and editing and less willing to spend money on such books — whether p or e. However, the closer the purchase price gets to zero, the more tolerant I am.

The freedom to publish anything and the failure of authors and many publishers to invest in quality for ebooks has resulted in making purchasers wary across the board. I “purchase” more books than ever, but spend less money doing so. What is needed by authors and publishers is for that to change so that the more I purchase, the more money I spend. If I were a gambler, I’d bet against that change occurring any time soon. If self-publishing authors and traditional publishers don’t soon start offering the correct balance of quality and pricing, they may well lose readers to free permanently.

February 9, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of my to-be-read acquisitions. Fortunately, ebooks don’t weigh much.

My newest hardcover acquisitions include:

  • Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones (story behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

My ebook acquisitions include (an asterisk [*] following a book title indicates that I have completed reading the listed book):

Fiction

  • Olivia’s Kiss* by Catherine Durkin Robinson (see my review of this book: On Books: Olivia’s Kiss)
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay* by Suzanne Collins (good series but not outstanding, although its appeal to young adult readers is evident)
  • Lady from the Jade Mountain by Jonathan Saville
  • The Man with the Iron-On Badge* by Lee Goldberg (excellent police-procedural-type story; well worth reading)
  • An Agent of the King by Nigel Slater
  • Faithful Warrior* by Basil Sands (not particularly well-written or interesting)
  • The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray
  • The complete Lord Vorkosigan* Series by Lois McMaster Bujold (an excellent and highly recommended series)
  • The complete Vatta’s War* Series by Elizabeth Moon Bujold (it, too, is excellent and highly recommended)
  • The complete Heris Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Carved in Bone* by Jefferson Bass (an excellent murder mystery)
  • Daughters* by Consuelo Saah Baehr (well-written and interesting story of multiple generations of Arab daughters; similar to the outstanding Shayne Parkinson Promises to Keep quartet reviewed in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept)
  • Starlighter by Bryan Davis
  • A Plunder by Pilgrims by Jack Nolte
  • The Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • Justice is Served by D.P. Clark
  • Champion of the Rose by Andrea Höst
  • The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ameriqaeda* by Markus Kane (a well-written thriller that imagines home grown terrorism in America)

Nonfiction

  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (I bought this in hardcover but it still sits in my TBR pile, so I decided to buy the ebook version as well in hopes of getting to it sooner; the result is that I have finally started this long tome)
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard
  • A Magnificient Catastrophe* by Edward J. Larson (see my review of this book: On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe)

As you can see just by the length of the lists, in the past couple of months I have been more involved in reading fiction than nonfiction, and definitely more involved in ebook reading than print book reading. (Many of the fiction ebooks are available for free or for nominal cost at Smashwords. If you are willing to give indie authors a chance, you can obtain myriad ebooks, ranging in quality from poor to outstanding, with most falling in the good to above average range, for $2.99 or less — all the way down to free — at places like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and Manybooks.)

Although I have been trending toward reading more ebooks than pbooks, the trend really accelerated with the purchase of my new Sony 950 in late October. Reading on the device is so pleasurable, that I almost hate to pickup a hardcover book.

My browsing habits have also changed. In previous months and years, you could almost set your watch by my at-least-once-weekly habit of going to my local bookstore and browsing the new nonfiction releases and buying several books. Except to buy a new opera, I haven’t been to the local bookstore in a couple of months.

A recent New York Times article discussed the impact ereading devices are having on children. Apparently, the devices were high on the holiday wishlists of many children and for those who received one, has changed their leisure habits. One 11-year-old girl featured in the article has spent significantly more time reading and less time on the computer or watching TV since receiving an ereader for the holiday.

Although I rarely watched TV before getting my first ereader (a Sony 505), my habits, as I have noted in various articles on this blog, also changed. I began reading more fiction and more books overall. This change has been reinforced with the acquisition of my Sony 950.

Perhaps as these ereaders gain traction among the very young, reading will have a renaissance, something that would definitely be worthwhile.

January 24, 2011

Making B&N Number One

As we know, the two ebooktailer giant in the United States are Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And, as we know, Amazon is currently the number 1 ebooktailer. But there is no reason why B&N, with a bit of shrewdness, can’t move closer to or takeover the number 1 position. I’m prepared to make one suggestion along this path.

Currently, B&N is trying to get people who do not currently own a dedicated ereader to buy a Nook. Why not work on getting people who already own a dedicated device — e.g., a Kobo, Sony, or Kindle or other brand — to move to the Nook? Why not offer a trade-in:

Bring us your working device and we’ll exchange it for a brand new nook! Want the Nook Color, you can have it for your working device plus $75. In addition, we’ll give you a $50 B&N gift certificate for buying ebooks.

I’ll admit that the offer wouldn’t tempt me considering the current state of the Nook as compared to my Sony 950, but I think it would tempt a lot of current owners of other brands. And B&N could make back some of its loss by eBaying the working exchanged devices.

The name of the game is not device owners but getting people to buy ebooks. The device is essentially a one-time sale. Most people buy the device and won’t consider buying an upgrade or newer device for several years, if not longer. In my case, I used my Sony 505 for 3 years before buying the 950 and if I had know that my wife was going to ultimately decide that she still wanted the print version of the New York Times, I would still be using my Sony 505 and would not have bought the 950. I upgraded for a specific reason that turned out to be a failed experiment.

And when I look at what other ebookers list as their device, I note that many ebookers are still using the even older Sony 500 and Kindle 1. There isn’t a groundswell that compels the average ebooker to upgrade the device. After all, the Kindle 1 and the Sony 505 still perform the function for which they were designed — enabling the user to pleasurably read ebooks.

Consequently, with the exception of the cadre who must have the latest and greatest technology, the device is not a revenue generator. Rather, it is ebooks that are the revenue generators and what both B&N and Amazon need to do is get device owners to regularly buy ebooks from their ebookstores. Thus, although exchanging other devices for the Nook would mean taking a one-time hit to the financials, if B&N got its act together, it could turn the person who buys 1 or 2 ebooks a year, or who only “buys” the free ebooks, to buy (for dollars) 10 to 12 ebooks a year.

Of course, should B&N try this it would have to be prepared for the tit-for-tat comeback by Amazon, offering an even better deal for people who exchanged their non-Kindle devices for a Kindle. To my mind, the only defense that B&N would have would be if it came up with superior customer service, aggressive marketing, and — before embarking on an exchange program — a better device.

It isn’t that the Kindle is a better device than the Nook; it is that people believe it is. Neither device is particularly well designed and both can stand some significant improvement, but B&N needs to convince users that everything about B&N is a better ebook experience than can be had at Amazon. B&N can begin by improving its customer service and the Nook. But the real ace in the hole for B&N is its bricks-and-mortar stores.

Some creative thinking about how the b&m stores fit with the Nook experience could let B&N pull rapidly ahead of Amazon in the ebook game. Here’s one thing I would do if I were in charge:

Come into the b&m store with your Nook. Browse our shelves for a book. Bring the pbook and your Nook to the special Nook counter and you can buy the ebook version at 15% off the current ebook price. And if you want to buy both the ebook and the pbook, you’ll get the 15% off the ebook and an additional 15% off the pbook price. (For B&N members this would be in addition to their member discount. Not a B&N member? Join on the spot and get the member discount plus the 15% discount.) And as long as you are here buying a book, have a coffee on us.

I would also have special sale events, worked out with publishers, that are only available in store, such as enabling a customer to obtain the first ebook in a series free if they buy the second and third together.

And why not have special Senior Citizen Nights. If you are a senior citizen, you can learn — one-on-one — how to operate your Nook and while learning how to use it (overcoming the technophobia that is often seen in seniors), we have special discounts for you, and even special subscription deals. OK, I know you are itching to hear more about this idea, so here goes:

If I were B&N’s chairman, I would be calling all of the major publishers, notably the big 6, and try to convince them to offer a special subscription to seniors. For $x per month you can “borrow” any new release for up to 3 weeks. If you haven’t finished it in 3 weeks, you can borrow it again until you do as long as you are a current subscriber. Finish the book in 1 week? Then borrow another book. The subscription fee is for 1 month for 1 device for an unlimited number of books — just 1 at a time — but you can’t keep or lend the book. Essentially it is librarying books for senior citizens with B&N and the publisher each getting a cut. 

Even if you don’t like any of these ideas, the point is that B&N needs to turn its b&m stores into an advantage in the ebook world and it needs to increase the number of Nook owners and users. I’m certainly open to suggestions, and based on what I read about B&N, it should be open to suggestions.

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